Dvorak: Learning From Google

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The top executives at Google recently admitted that they kind of let their employees invent and develop whatever they think is cool and the company has no problem putting it online to see what happens.

Thus far a number of very successful efforts have appeared, from mapping applications to, uh, well ... chatting?

I was thinking about all the cool stuff Google has done when I realized that none of it was original.

The folks at Microsoft, long known for being copycats, must be furious, since nobody has ever accused Google of the same thing.

Everything Google has done has been derivative. The search engine was taken from the AltaVista idea of huge computer farms. Gmail is a clone of Hotmail. The Google Chat is nothing special. Orkut is a copy of Friendster. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Even the invention of ads targeted to search requests is derivative of the old GoTo.com (search) search engine. I'm surprised Google hasn't done a lottery.

So why does Google get off scot-free insofar as public criticism is concerned?

I've pondered this and I think it is purely by the company's seemingly nonaggressive and pleasant nature. The people at Google present themselves as public servants. They aren't making public denunciations of the competition or saying they'll crush the competition, the way Steve Ballmer does.

Also, the company doesn't necessarily "go after" anyone — or so it seems. Maybe someone can show me contrary evidence.

The only mean-spirited thing the company has ever done seems to be its refusal to talk to CNET: "No soup for you — come back in one year!"

That edict was delivered when CNET wrote up and posted billionaire Google CEO Eric Schmidt's (search) personal information, which was gathered with Google searches. But that episode seems to be less about Google and more about Schmidt's being peeved.

When Google does copy another idea, such as mapping, they put a unique twist on it, such as their satellite image overlays. When they copied the Hotmail model with Gmail, they gave users a gigabyte of memory. Memory is cheap, and Google has plenty. Hotmail was hounding its customers to clean out their boxes or upgrade until Gmail came along.

Now Google appears to be rolling out a service that is similar to Craigslist, called Google base. The usefulness of this idea is blatantly obvious. Google can run a nationwide classified ad system and drop in those little Google ads along the way.

What else can we expect from Google?

Just look at the landscape and see what can be copied with a twist or what is out there already that can drive ad revenue. Surely Google will look at some of Yahoo!'s notions and make them work better.

Personals come to mind. The only sort of personals and matchmaking that have worked have been closed systems such as Match.com. All the open personals, except the ones on Craigslist, naturally deteriorate into spam.

Yahoo! is filled with tons of junk. It never created a cleaning mechanism such as that employed by Craigslist, where you can flag offensive posts or spam. Junk posts get removed by a community mechanism. Google can do this sort of code too.

Google has also avoided automated open forums, but there are a lot of growth opportunities there. Slashdot is probably the best example of a self-cleaning open forum with good usability.

Its new competitor Digg uses even weirder methodologies to generate both posts and self-cleaning. If you look at Web stats, the growth rate of Digg is phenomenal. Google must be looking at these as potential ad-revenue generators too.

We can probably expect to see Google TV and Google Radio. Perhaps a podcasting center might be opened, or even an iTunes clone.

The company has no choice but to become, essentially, the entire Internet. It already copies the whole thing (most of it anyway) onto its warehouses full of servers. So why not just become the Internet?

Luckily, the company isn't that nimble. And they do lose interest in some of their own ideas.

For example, a couple of years ago the company started scanning in almost all of the direct-mail catalogs for its catalog index, found here.

At first this was pretty phenomenal, but now many of the catalogs are very much out of date, and there seems to be little interest in the project. It's a handy resource that was under-promoted, and Google now seems to be looking for an exit strategy.

And, before someone chimes in, yes, there is always the possibility of Google marketing an operating system. Google-Linux is my best guess.

Not all the Google initiatives are best of breed. Its IM system, for example, is nothing special. Orkut falls far short of its competition. There are other examples.

Still, the search engine is still the best of breed and, more important, the company is best of breed and is warm and fuzzy. It is an object lesson for those entrepreneurs who think you have to be overly competitive to get anywhere in high tech.

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